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DECCA 48061; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 

There’s going to be a number of artists over the years in our trip through rock history whose each and every appearance on these pages will be a welcome sight.

That’s not to say that they’ll all be superstars with a long list of hit records to their names, nor will it even mean that the records in question will have all been deserving of being hits. In fact in some cases the results will be decidedly average in the big scheme of things.

But “average” has different meanings and it’s important early on in the proceedings to parse those meanings so there’s no confusing the two definitions of the word.

As for the first description we have in Cousin Joe somebody whose output at times might wind up being rather average in terms of our assessment of the records in relation to other rock releases of that time. That definition of “average” will be discernible in the scores at the bottom of each review.

Let it be said once more though that an average record is still nothing to be ashamed of. They’re perfectly representative of rock ‘n’ roll at that particular time, something that you would’ve heard and reasonably embraced if you were a rock fan when these sides came out. But while fitting comfortably into the big picture of the music back then, they weren’t necessarily advancing the ball much. They were content to simply be heard, to be an unobtrusive part of the musical landscape and to keep rock’s standards at a fairly steady level to ensure it wasn’t done away with altogether.

But then there’s another type of average which Cousin Joe could never be called in a million years. The kind of “average” that was rather mundane in its intent, songs lacking in creativity, charm and ambition.

Cousin Joe was anything but average in that regard, for even when the results of the records were deemed middle of the pack, the components he put into it were usually of a much higher quality than were found even in some of the best records you’ll come across.
 

 
Ancient History
Joseph Pleasant, his given name, only had formal education through ninth grade, like many kids in his time and situation dropping out when he was old enough to go to work. But when you listen to the lyrics he wrote as an adult you aren’t at all surprised to learn that he’d been so smart growing up that he skipped grades leading up to junior high.

In other words, if you’re looking for rock’s first notable lyricist look no further than Cousin Joe.

Though his standout record – Boxcar Shorty And Peter Blue – was a re-fashioned version of the public domain Stagger Lee story, Joe’s native intelligence came through even there, as he spewed the familiar words out with the charisma of a master thespian.

On his own compositions the stories themselves took widely known truisms and crafted them with intricate details and vibrant wordplay to set them apart from the more generic tunes covering the same basic topics that had existed for years. Even if you were unable to hear his metallic tinged vocals delivering the lines, you’d be able to tell it was a Cousin Joe song by the clever turn of phrases he readily used at every opportunity.

What he was, when you get right down to it, was a troubadour in the classic sense, somebody who’d convince you that he’d just sat down and began singing something off the top of his head and yet by the nuances of his delivery, the depth of his observations and the charm of his presentation you’d walk away knowing you’d been in the presence of a master.

Yet that skill inevitably loses a little something when confined to the sterile wax of a record. There’s undoubtedly a reason why Cousin Joe’s recording career comprised just a small – and mostly secondary – part of his professional occupation. Joe was at his best on stage, where that personal touch he possessed could be best appreciated by the audience breathing the same air. Where they could catch the glint in his eye, feel the smile he flashed was intended specifically for them and them alone, and where each performance could be orchestrated by him as he went along, adjusting his approach on the fly based on their response.

It’s in that setting where a song like Evolution Blues belongs and where it undoubtedly thrived. But since we’re a long way from the New Orleans clubs he held court at throughout the late 1940’s and 50’s, or even the international venues a rejuvenated Cousin Joe played throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, we’re left to analyze the version cut in a studio played for no audience but the engineer, the members of the band and whatever stray dog or family of spiders sat quietly in the corner as they cut the track.
 


 

A Little Sweet Talk
Though lyrics are always Cousin Joe’s forte, and sure enough form the bedrock of this song as well, he’s aided immeasurably by the deft band led by pianist Sammy Price who as co-writer handled the framework used to best set off Joe’s story.

Price, though not from New Orleans, plays in a style that is a staple of the Crescent City and one that Joe, a pianist in his own right, likely felt right at home playing on stage when he’d do this song each night in his set forever after.

It’s a delicate sound without being dainty. An aural embellishment of the underlying whimsical mood of the sentiments that can hold your attention if you let your mind focus on it, yet if you remain fixated on Joe instead it’s a good bet the piano’s fluttery treble passages will still leave an impression as they drift in and out of your consciousness.

But of course it’s Cousin Joe you’ve come to hear and in Evolution Blues he weaves a compelling story around the basic premise of men losing their common sense and better judgment whenever a woman is around.

Now of course there’s no shortage of songs that have mined a similar topic over the years but Joe approaches this from a more existential perspective rather than sticking to specific examples to set the story up complete with a plotline, conflict and resolution. He uses himself as the guinea pig if you will, the brunt of his own scorn for falling prey to this unfortunate habit that afflicts most men since Adam listened to Eve in the Garden Of Eden.

As is often the case with Cousin Joe he takes a familiar saying and turns it inside out, or rather in this instance flips two meanings so that one leads inevitably into the other. He starts off stating Darwin’s Theory Of Evolution, a pretty heady topic for any song (and especially one done by a high school dropout), about man descending from monkeys. He tips you off as to his intent by using monkey rather than ape, which is the more common reference in this theory, because of what he’s setting up the payoff line to be:

Nature made man out of monkey according to ancient history
But it took a beautiful woman to make a monkey out of me


It’s not laugh out loud funny – especially if you’re a guy – but it’s something that every male who’s reached puberty will reluctantly nod his head in agreement with, all while the girls sitting beside them will be stifling a knowing grin, making eye contact with one another with the unspoken agreement to meet for drinks later to exchange “can you top this” stories about their own experiences with men who they’ve gotten to act the fool over the years.

The thing about it is, Joe, and all of us with an X and Y chromosome for that matter, KNOW how we’re being played and yet at times we fall for it anyway. The weapons girls use to tame us are so basic as to be insulting – a smile, some shallow compliments, and the often all too elusive promise of some physical companionship along the way – yet of course they work all the same. Most guys don’t even put up a fight against these tactics, rarely demanding much more effort on the part of females when they’re luring you to be captured, and it’s here that Joe continues the man-monkey analogy by remarking quite pointedly, “Before you know it that woman will have you climbing trees!

This critique takes on a rather uncomfortable personal tint when he uses as an example the Biblical Samson – no relation, different spelling, but unfortunately the same pronunciation to my own name – who after complimenting for being the world’s strongest man points out that this strength didn’t equate to the muscle between his ears as he stupidly cuts off his hair for a woman, in the process losing that strength, that girl and probably his townhouse on the beach along with getting his car repossessed.

Needless to say it’s not shaping up to be a story with a happy ending for those wearing pants rather than skirts in the listening audience.
 

When That Woman Gets Through With You
As sharp eyed and true to life as this may be there’s still something lacking about it as a record however. It’s something that scans very well yet doesn’t have any sing-along quality to it to make you cast aside the personal uneasiness of being made the target of this castigating harangue and get you to join in.

The melody is oddly deliberate… it’s not a ballad delivered in somber tones which would ramp up the bitterness as he bemoans his cursed fate, yet it’s also not uptempo enough to groove along to it with a devil-may-care attitude. When Billy Butler chips in with a guitar solo all of the notes are carefully chosen and played with a sharpness that’s admirable, yet it’s hardly riveting in any way. You’re not quite sure how to respond to it all in the isolation of your own mind.

Smile grimly? Shake your head in embarrassment? Weep uncontrollably? Shrug it off with a dopey smile, determined to be played for a sucker the next time out as well?

Cousin Joe can sell the lyrics just fine, arguably no one to date was any better at getting across the mindset behind a song’s words, and he does that well enough on Evolution Blues to make it effective. But it seems as if the concept he came up with was deemed so promising that he was relying on that ingenuity to connect with the audience, even as the story boxes itself in.

He doesn’t repeat the same observations following the break and there is another witty line or two still to come to make you at least smirk a bit if not crack a smile, but he’s left himself no way to wrap this up satisfactorily. Hemmed into the primate comparison he’s got to squeeze the two syllables of the word monkey into a spot whose scansion requires only one syllable and the reflection that follows and closes the song out is the weakest of the four stanzas, even if it just as true as the ones which preceded it.

But that leads to the other issue regarding its reception on record, one involving just who the audience is intended to be.

In a live venue there’s going to be men and women split somewhat equally, all in the same setting, enjoying the band, maybe drinking some (okay, definitely drinking some) and exchanging in some hopefully witty banter of their own leading up to the floor show.

In other words there’s going to be flirting going on, a friendly battle of the sexes that occurs on every date, wherein each side knows what the other side wants or expects and each one is trying to gently wrest control of the situation from one another.

In THAT setting, where essentially you’re having Cousin Joe comment on that very thing as it happens, it will pull back the veil, break the tension and get you both to see through the other’s technique and hopefully drop the silly pretense that neither of you is at all aware that it is going on.

But on a 78 RPM disc spinning around a record player in the confines of your own home or even on a jukebox in some drugstore or café where not everybody is listening because they didn’t necessarily come in the place to hear music but rather to buy some razor blades or a sandwich instead, the effect Evolution Blues has is bound to be entirely different.

Now it becomes a rather uncomfortable appraisal of your own actions as a male, or a disparaging comment on your past, present or future partners if you’re a female. In that light – while still perfectly accurate – the lighthearted tone is dropped just enough to make it less appealing. You aren’t nodding your head in agreement to the assessment of man’s often bewildering decisions, you’re grimacing at them instead.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it still holds up – as a perceptive commentary on human nature as well as a strong vocal and musical performance – but the jovial nature it requires to leave listeners with a smile is somewhat diminished when removed from the environment that has a broader receptive audience all experiencing it together.

So while you can certainly say that a lot about Evolution Blues is above average, from the idea itself to the sharp-eyed delivery Cousin Joe presents it with, the fact remains that the unique setting it needs to truly hit its mark – one that it can’t have in this format – makes it only an average record in the end.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cousin Joe for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)